On the 14th September 1814, the poem that was to provide the lyrics for the United States’ national anthem was written by 35 year-old Francis Scott Key. Called “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, the poem provides an account of the British attack during the Battle of Baltimore.

The War of 1812 had already been raging for two years when the British launched a seaborne invasion of Baltimore. At the time of the invasion, Key was aboard one of the British Navy ships lying off the coast. He had sailed to the flagship HMS Tonnant the previous week in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange, and was present when the British officers discussed war plans. Consequently he was not permitted to return to his own boat since he would be able to pass intelligence to the American military.

When the British began their attack, Key was therefore only to watch as Fort McHenry was subjected to an enormous bombardment from the ships, including a number of Congreve rockets from HMS Erebus that provided the “rockets red glare” in the fifth line of the poem. However, bad weather combined with the poor accuracy of the British munitions being fired at their maximum range meant that little damage was done to the fort.

When dawn came and the skies cleared, Key could clearly see a large American flag flying above the fort, and felt inspired to write the poem. It was published a week later alongside a note instructing readers to sing it to the melody of “The Anacreontic Song”. Ironically, the song itself was English.

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© Scott Allsop